New York

Damar Hamlin’s Collapse Tests Buffalo Again: ‘Karma Owes Us’

Over the last eight months, the city of Buffalo has been buffeted by one tragedy after another: a racist massacre at a Tops supermarket in May, a deadly Christmastime blizzard, a house fire over the weekend that killed five children.

But through it all, the city’s beloved football team, the Bills, has been a bright spot, offering its legion of fans, known as the Bills Mafia, a welcome distraction from grim headlines.

That shell of easy escapism was shattered on Monday night, when the team’s 24-year-old safety, Damar Hamlin, collapsed after making a tackle during a much-anticipated game in Cincinnati. Mr. Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest, according to the team, and had to be revived on the field as his fellow Bills wept openly around him.

Shock and sadness were felt across the nation, but particularly in western New York, where the Bills’ recent success and scrappy play have made the team emblematic of the region’s down-but-never-out spirit.

“It has been the snowball that I’ve been hoping would end,” said Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County executive, before echoing a comment he first uttered after the December blizzard that killed 39 people in his county. “Karma owes us.”

At the Big Tree Inn in Orchard Park, N.Y., the all-things-Bills bar just down the road from the team’s stadium, the pain was being felt by patrons who knew Mr. Hamlin as one of the team’s players who sometimes visited the bar after games.

“We know him personally,” said Eugene Smaszcz, the general manager at the bar, where jerseys of famed Bills players line the wall. “Nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”

Mr. Smaszcz recalled how Mr. Hamlin’s injury had suddenly silenced an ebullient crowd in the Big Tree, which was packed on Monday night as the Bills took on the Cincinnati Bengals, a conference rival, in a critical game.

“It was gut-wrenching,” he said. “It went from a very busy bar to people crying at the bar and crying at tables.”

On Tuesday, the team said that Mr. Hamlin remained in intensive care and critical condition. At the same time, local elected officials were reminding residents of crisis hotlines if the torrent of bad news had simply becoming overwhelming.

An outpouring of “enough already” extended online, where many Buffalonians, both present and past, were praying for both Mr. Hamlin and their hometown. On Twitter, the hashtag #Buffalostrong — a slogan after the mass shooting at the Tops supermarket in May — was back, even if it seemed worn out by overuse.

“Buffalo is strong,” Michael Benny, a local news anchor, said on Twitter. “But this is all too much.”

The watch over Mr. Hamlin’s health came even as the city was still shaken from last month’s “once-in-a-generation” blizzard, which brought hurricane-force winds and blinding snow to the city, trapping some victims in their cars and freezing others on streets and in snowbanks.

Days later, a New Year’s Eve fire tore through a home on the city’s northeast side, killing five children, none older than 10. Only an infant was spared.

Lisa Balderman, 38, a Buffalo native and psychotherapist, said she believed many Buffalo residents and Bills fans were suffering “vicarious trauma” from the barrage of awful events, noting that the region was also dealing with the impact of Covid-19, which left thousands dead in Erie County alone.

“Add the layers of the recent events that have occurred specifically in Buffalo — a mass murder, deadly blizzard and now watching a major medical crisis unfold — and there is a heaviness,” she said, adding, “The mental health needs of our community are significant right now.”

On Monday night, as Mr. Hamlin was transported to a hospital in Cincinnati, elected officials across the state, including New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, and Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Buffalo native, offered their prayers.

Jim Kelly, a former quarterback and Bills legend, expressed disbelief at what he was watching.

“Never before have I ever witnessed anything like this,” Mr. Kelly said. “The game doesn’t matter. Praying for Damar and his family.”

For fans who have watched the Bills get tantalizingly close to championships only to come up short, the team’s recent roll of winning seasons has both heightened expectations and leavened the mood in the city after the recent string of calamities.

“We have had bad luck in Buffalo,” said Patty Oswald, 59, who lives in nearby North Tonawanda. “I was hoping a Super Bowl win would cheer us up.”

At the same time, other fans said that the horrific sight of Mr. Hamlin’s receiving C.P.R. on the field and leaving in an ambulance had given them pause.

“You expect to see injuries, but not life-and-death,” said Jim Palladino, 73, who said he had been a Bills fan since the Eisenhower administration. “It really puts things in perspective. I’m reflecting more. I’m reflecting on what’s more important, what’s worth getting upset about, what’s worth letting go.”

Indeed, while Mr. Poloncarz said it was difficult to explain how much Bills fans loved their team — “a passion that’s indescribable unless you’re from here,” he said — he added that Mr. Hamlin’s injury had actually made football seem unimportant at the moment.

“Nothing matters more,” he said, “than ensuring that that young man lives.”

Mr. Smaszcz agreed, saying that the outcome of the showdown with the Bengals, which he called one of most crucial contests in years, no longer made a difference to him or many other Bills fans.

“This arealooks forward to Bills football: for a couple hours on a Sunday, you see people with smiles on their faces,” he said. “But right now, here, nobody is thinking about the game.”

Lauren D’Avolio reported from Buffalo, N.Y.

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